The Fantastic Mr. Renard

euphemisms, neologisms, viral tweets, and the sewers of history

RENARD, n. This is how you say “fox” in French. It’s not what you’d expect from the Latin, where the word for “fox” is variously spelled vulpes, vulpis, volpes, and provides the source of English vulpine, which means “related to foxes” and also “crafty, cunning.”

Old French did have a word related to vulpes, and that word was goupil. Technically it came from vulpeculus/vulpecula, Latin for “little fox” or “fox kit,” hence the L at the end of the word. The Latin v- changed to g- partly through influence from Germanic languages, where proto-Romance speakers borrowed words from Germanic languages but had trouble with w- as in initial consonant, so instead of Germanic werra (war), they would say guerra. In Italian, you can still hear people make the gw- sound for that one, but not so in French and Spanish. Instead of Germanic wardan (to keep), proto-Romance speakers would say guardare, and thanks to Guillaume/William conquering his way across the Channel in 1066, English contains both “guard” and “ward.”

“But vulpes isn’t a Germanic borrowing,” I can hear you protesting, and you’re right. It’s indigenous to Latin, so why did that v- change? My copy of Peter Boyd-Bowman’s From Latin to Romance in Sound Charts says it’s likely because of the proximity of vulpes to another Germanic word, wulf.

A cool thing about animal words in languages all over the world is that they are subject to euphemisms, particularly animals that humans find frightening or troublesome. Vulpes itself comes from the Proto-Indo-European word for “red,” meaning that PIE speakers might have had another word for “fox,” but they started saying “the red one” out of superstition that mentioning foxes would make them come around. This may also be the case with English “bear,” which might come from an Old English root for “brown.” (Attestation’s not for sure on that one.) It is definitely the case for the Russian word for bear, медведь (that’s [mʲɪdˈvʲetʲ] in IPA and something like medved’ in English transcription) which means “honey-eater.” It’s also the case for the Latvian word for wolf, vilks, which comes from a nickname that meant “the killer, the plunderer, the destroyer.” Modern Latvian still uses euphemistic nicknames for the animal, like “the grey one” or “the forest one.”

So what happened to Old French goupil? It got replaced by a euphemism!

People in medieval France were nervous to talk about foxes by their actual name, so they were casting around for other words. In the second half of the 12th century, some allegorical fables about a trickster fox gave them a perfect replacement. In English we usually call these fables the tales of Reynard the Fox, and in French the collected stories are called the Roman de Renart. Renart, or Reynard, at the time, was just a Germanic name (like Reinhard), but the fables made the fox character into a folklore superstar. If you wanted to talk about a fox eating your chickens, no need to say the bad-luck word goupil anymore. Who ate those chickens? Renard.

This is sort of like if everyone in the US stopped saying “frog” and started calling those little pond-dwelling amphibians “kermits”—except we did it out of an overriding superstitious fear of frogs.

Having read some tales in the Roman de Renart, I can’t say I recommend them for light pleasure reading. The medieval European concept of a trickster is less “fun hijinks” and more “rape and murder.” But I guess that’s connected to why people were too scared of foxes to say the actual word.

Did I write all these paragraphs just to tell you all that a couple weeks ago, when we were sitting on our back stoop one morning, a fox ran through our yard? No. But that is, coincidentally, true. I took a blurry picture. It was very cool. (No one got murdered.)

I have been thinking a lot about how words spread, because of who I am as a person and also because I made up a portmanteau while listening to a friend’s band cover Joan Jett at a local bar, put down my beer, picked up my phone, and tweeted it. As of this writing, 36,823 people have liked the tweet.

That is… really a lot of people. Obviously the concept resonates.

I was delighted, but also overwhelmed and slightly panicked by the response, so I muted the tweet and thus have not seen all the example sentences contributed by twitter, but I know there have been many.

The internet, or at least twitter, works in brief bursts of enthusiasm. One day we’re hysterically laugh-crying about 30-50 feral hogs, and the next, we’ve moved on. But some things—new slang, meme formats, even punctuation—stick. How does that work? What makes the difference?

How do you go from “Renart” the character to the word renard completely replacing goupil? Presumably this process of absorption happened more slowly in the 12th century, but renard feels like a medieval meme to me. The internet makes it easier to track the spread of new words—here, for instance, is a 2015 Language Log post tracking “on fleek,” which was once in common usage and now seems to have vanished—but the data doesn’t provide the why. That’s what is so cool about the animal euphemisms—linguists notice a pattern of people saying “honey-eater” or “the forest one” instead of “bear” or “wolf,” and we understand the superstitious reasoning behind those choices.

I actually went viral on twitter twice this week. Apparently this struck a nerve with other writers:

Close your 50 tabs before you criticize mine. (Pretty sure that’s in the Bible.)

And as long as I’m reporting on Twitter This Week, there’s been a fun game lately where people write out the plots of books—their own or others’—as if they were posts on the advice forum r/relationships.

Here’s one that’s relevant to the interests of this newsletter:

Yes, this week in Capital-R Romance, I finally found the strength to pick up Les Mis again. Last time I wrote about Les Mis, I was so upset about Gavroche’s death that I didn’t even talk about Enjolras and Grantaire. You may remember them from a previous newsletter, or your own reading, but in case you don’t: Enjolras is the twink angel of revolution who leads 9 of his homosocial pals (21-35M) to set up barricades in the streets, and Grantaire is the gloomy drunk skeptic who cares about nothing in the world except for Enjolras. They’re insufferable and they belong with each other.

Naturally, since this is Les Mis and everyone is dying, they both died. But they died together, in a chapter called “Orestes fasting and Pylades drunk,” which is, by 1862-in-France mainstream bestseller standards, practically Victor Hugo skywriting “THEY’RE GAY.”

So that was wonderful and terrible at the same time. I take solace in the fact that Enjolras and Grantaire been provided with somewhere in the neighborhood of 10,000 happy endings on AO3.

I also arrived, at last, at the famous series of essays on the sewers of Paris, which precede a sequence of scenes where Jean Valjean carries an unconscious Marius through the sewers. Victor Hugo graces the descriptions of the sewers with his characteristically generous—perhaps too generous—use of adjectives, and the whole thing is fascinating and very, very gross.

Abridged editions of Les Mis probably cut out the sewer parts, and it certainly didn’t make it into the musical, but I enjoyed it. Hugo always uses these essay moments to zoom out and comment on French history, which I love.

Sometimes when people describe Les Mis, they say it’s about a revolution, then rush to add, “but not that Revolution,” which is true. Nor it is it about the July Revolution that happened in 1830. The action of the plot takes place in 1832, when there was an uprising in June that caused chaos in Paris for a few days until it was brutally put down.

We are all forgiven for not knowing the specific revolution discussed in Les Mis. France has had many. Parisians have continued taking to the streets throughout the 20th and 21st centuries, from May 1968’s “Sous les pavés, la plage” (Under the paving stones, the beach) student protests to the protests of the “gilets jaunes” (yellow vests) at the end of 2018.

Speaking of what’s under the paving stones, in Hugo’s chapters on the sewers of Paris, he follows the story of a city official named Bruneseau who did a survey of the sewers under Napoleon. When Bruneseau goes down into the sewers, he finds a curiously fine piece of cloth torn into a rag. A heraldic crown embroidered into the fabric identifies it as having once belonged to a grand old aristocratic family, that of the marquis de Laubespine. Specifically, the rag had belonged to the marquise de Laubespine, who had taken the revolutionary Marat as her lover, long before he was Marat.

Jacques-Louis David, The Death of Marat, 1793

After Marat’s assassination in his bathtub by Charlotte Corday, he was wrapped in a shroud like a martyr. The only good piece of cloth in his lodgings? A set of bedsheets from the marquise de Laubespine.

In one single scrap of fabric, Hugo evokes the by-gone days of the Ancien Régime—the amours of the marquise—and the would-be martyrdom of a revolutionary, all of it rotting in the sewers of Paris.

So yes, Les Mis is about that Revolution. How could it not be? Sous les pavés, l’histoire.

A photo of some zinnias, cosmos, and lavender from my yard in flower arrangements, on top of a colorful tablecloth with a glass of wine, a notebook, a pen, and my iPad with the screen showing a page from Les Mis. Also, I guess I do #bookstagram now.

This week in small-r romance, I read Nine Rules to Break When Romancing a Rake (m/f, historical) by Sarah Maclean, because Sarah Maclean did such a wonderful job MCing the RITA award ceremony at the annual Romance Writers of America conference, and this was the book my library had available immediately. It’s a good, solid historical romance—Regency-era wallflower decides to rebel against the social strictures that have confined her life, engages the help of a handsome titled rake to do it. I wished the book had acknowledged the existence of queerness or transness, which I think is especially necessary in a book where the cis heroine disguises herself as a man. A mention wouldn’t have gone amiss. (Victor Hugo managed in 1862, after all.)

I also finished Best of Luck (m/f, contemporary) by Kate Clayborn, which was just so gorgeously written and full of feeling. It’s the sequel to Luck of the Draw, discussed two weeks ago. In Best of Luck, the two main characters have perfectly, diametrically opposed problems. Greer has never been allowed to do anything on her own, as a person who’s had lifelong serious health concerns, whereas Alex, as the elder child of an addict, has always had to do everything on his own, including parent his little sister. Watching the two of them negotiate that is the most wrenching of pleasures.

My last romance read this week was A Little Light Mischief (f/f, historical, novella) by Cat Sebastian, which is aptly titled and so much fun. Two queer women rob the awful man who has wronged one of them, and they fall in love in the process. And, like The Lady’s Guide to Celestial Mechanics last week, this romance also has sexy needlework: “Instead of handing the needle directly to Alice, Molly slid it into the edge of Alice’s work. It felt impertinent, this practiced gesture. Too familiar.” I bet it did.

Anyway, I love a historical romance where people on the margins of society can find happiness despite not having fortunes or titles or conformity to the rules. Sometimes people complain about “historical accuracy” when historical romance shows marginalized people finding happiness, which is how you know that you should not talk to those people.

Not everyone was getting shot at barricades in Paris or otherwise living and dying in unrelieved misery throughout history. There’s a particular theory in Jewish history called “the lachrymose conception,” which is the idea that most of Jewish history is suffering. Naturally, Jewish historians argue about this a lot, but I always really love seeing historians working against it—not erasing or diminishing the suffering, but making a point to highlight how people lived day-to-day, and celebrating the richness found there.

Of course there was suffering in history. People were persecuted and hurt and killed or they died of malnutrition or disease or all kinds of other terrible things. It’s rough to be alive and it always has been. But there is no shortage of suffering in the present, and we are still working our hardest to make the world a better, kinder, more just and beautiful place. If we can do it now, they could do it then—and vice versa. Part of the work of art is to make you believe it’s possible.

Good Bones

by Maggie Smith

Life is short, though I keep this from my children.
Life is short, and I’ve shortened mine
in a thousand delicious, ill-advised ways,
a thousand deliciously ill-advised ways
I’ll keep from my children. The world is at least
fifty percent terrible, and that’s a conservative
estimate, though I keep this from my children.
For every bird there is a stone thrown at a bird.
For every loved child, a child broken, bagged,
sunk in a lake. Life is short and the world
is at least half terrible, and for every kind
stranger, there is one who would break you,
though I keep this from my children. I am trying
to sell them the world. Any decent realtor,
walking you through a real shithole, chirps on
about good bones: This place could be beautiful,
right? You could make this place beautiful.